Mexico’s Mayan World: A Birding and Photography Adventure Itinerary

Dates: 19-31 March 2019 with Kim Risen & Rick Bowers
            2-14 April 2019 with Kim Risen and Nick Bray

DAY ONE, April 2 – Arrival in Cancun. You’ll be met at the airport exit doors by your leaders for this tour, Kim Risen and Rick Bowers. Transfer to Playa del Carmen.

The remains of our day may be spent exploring the many offerings of Playa del Carmen. There is a fantastic beach, a botanical garden that’s good for birds and learning some of the native vegetation and a number of shaded palapas (thatched sun shelters) on the beautiful beach for lounging. I’m sure we can find SOMETHING to do! Night Playa del Carmen.

DAY TWO, April 3 – We’ll enjoy an early morning departure to catch dawn’s first light to hit Cozumel Island, soft and gentle morning breezes are also when the birds are most active. We’ll journey into the central portion of the island to look for a few of Cozumel’s endemic birds. While Cozumel Thrasher may be extinct (the small population’s tenacious existence may have been wiped out by multiple severe hurricanes within the last decade), Cozumel Vireo, Cozumel Emerald, Cozumel Wren, Western Spindalis (Stripe-headed Tanager), Black Catbird, Yucatan Vireo, Yucatan Woodpecker, Caribbean Dove, Caribbean Elaenia and several endemic races of common mainland species are to be expected. Flowering and fruiting trees provide great photo opportunities and every visit to Cozumel has its own highlight.

If the group elects to visit other portions of Cozumel, we’ll rent a vehicle and explore the island more fully. There are scenic beaches, striking lighthouses, good birding, a national park that offers good snorkeling and a thousand different options. In the late afternoon we’ll travel by ferry back to the bustling resort city of Playa del Carmen. Night Playa del Carmen

Cozumel Woodpecker by Kim & Cindy Risen ©

If the group elects to visit other portions of Cozumel, we’ll rent a vehicle and explore the island more fully. There are scenic beaches, striking lighthouses, good birding, a national park that offers good snorkeling and a thousand different options. In the late afternoon we’ll travel by ferry back to the bustling resort city of Playa del Carmen. Night Playa del Carmen

DAY THREE, April 4 – Early departure for northern parts of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. Sunrise find us traveling through coastal forests as we make a special effort to find another endemic of the Yucatan Peninsula—Orange Oriole. We found a colony of these birds way back in ’94, and, although it may not be active this year, we should still be able to see several of these brilliant orioles somewhere in the neighborhood.

An area encompassing the Mayan ruins of Muyil, the village of Chunyaxche and the northern tip of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve includes seldom used trails off the beaten track that transport you back to the wilderness that greeted the first European explorers to visit the Yucatan. We’ll see impressive ruins covered in tropical vegetation, huge ‘strangler’ figs that have made these ancient limestone ruins their home for hundreds of years and tropical scenery that has made the region famous. Maintained trails provide access to the forest where Mexican (Black-faced) Antthrush, Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-breasted Spinetail, Red-capped Manakin and Green-backed Sparrows await.

Rufous-breasted Spinetail by Kim & Cindy Risen ©

We’ll enjoy lunch at our traditional spot overlooking the magnificently blue waters of the Caribbean before touring the ruins of Tulum from their perch above the same brilliantly colored sea. An after dark search for nightbirds is possible if folks have the energy. Night near Tulum.

DAY FOUR, April 5 – An early morning departure to visit what may be remembered as one of your favorite birding areas of the trip—the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. We make a predawn departure so that we’ll have opportunity to reach a bit further into the reserve’s tropical forests. Encompassing thousands of square miles—more than 525,000 hectares!—the Sian Ka’an supports the largest tract of undeveloped habitat along the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo. Meaning “Origin of the Sky”, the Sian Ka’an preserve is our best chance to have close encounters with Yucatan Parrot, Royal Flycatcher and a host of tropical forest species.

We’ll enjoy lunch at the nearby city of Felipe Carillo Puerto with an afternoon drive to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Night birding potential here is high and, if our group is up to it, we might search for owls, nightjars and potoos after dark. We’ve also found spectacular animals on our night drives, including Ocelot, Jaguarundi and Margay. Night Calakmul.

DAY FIVE, April 6 – We’ll enjoy an early breakfast so that sunrise will find us amid the expansive Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. The humid forest here has much more of a tropical flair when compared to the dry, scrub forest found across the northern Yucatan Peninsula. This tropical vegetation results in more diversity of species—plants, animals, insects and birds.

Birds observed on recent visits to the humid woodlands of this reserve include: Ocellated Turkey, Ornate and Black-and-white Hawk Eagles, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Plain Chachalaca, Singing Quail, White-tipped Dove, Blue Ground-Dove, White-fronted and Yellow-lored (Yucatan) Parrots, Gartered (Violaceous) and Collared Trogons, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Mexican Antthrush, Smoky-brown and Lineated Woodpeckers, Olivaceous, Northern Barred, Tawny-winged and Ruddy Woodcreepers, the impressive Royal Flycatcher, Tropical Pewee, Rose-throated Becard, Long-billed Gnatwren, Northern Bentbill, Lesser Greenlet, several of the difficult-to-find Gray-throated Chat, Rose-throated Tanager and Green-backed Sparrow. An impressive list to be sure!

Mexican Antthrush by Kim & Cindy Risen ©

We’ll enjoy the entire day in the reserve, exploring the ruins via trails through the forest savoring all that we encounter—noisy Black-mantled (Mexican) Howler Monkeys, dainty Central American Spider Monkeys, colorful orchids, ornate butterflies, spectacular birds and thoroughly impressive pyramids rising above the endless blanket of forest. Another night drive is possible. Night Calakmul.

DAY SIX, April 7 – Our final morning in the reserve is to be spent birding areas of Calakmul we haven’t had a chance to visit or to make a final effort for species we might have missed to this point. On past tours, we’ve pushed into the heart of the taller, more humid forest as quickly as possible to increase our chances of more ‘big forest’ birds.

After lunch, we’ll retrace our path northward along the coast before turning inland to the Mayan ruins of Coba. Coba, whose excavation was started only in 1972, was one of the largest cities in the Yucatan between 600 and 900 A.D. At its zenith, Coba’s sprawl covered about 80 square miles and hosted a population of about 50,000 people. Nohoch Mul, a 138-foot high pyramid, is the tallest Mayan structure in the northern Yucatan, rising even higher than Chichen Itza’s mammoth El Castillo. A nine-tiered castle, remnants of a ball court and more than 6,500 structures have already been uncovered from their tropical forest blankets. The name “Coba” means opaque waters and refers to the four green lakes situated within the surrounding jungle. With the scarcity of surface water in the Yucatan, it’s easy to understand why the area was critical to the Maya of that bygone era and to birds of our modern one. A bit of relaxed birding and an early dinner will end our day. Night Coba.

DAY SEVEN, April 8 – During our stay at Coba, we’ll stay at a newly constructed hotel near the village. After the closing of the venerable Villa Arqueologica, it’s the best available lodging close to the ruins. Simple, but clean with air-conditioning and hot water showers it’s our best option by far. From our hotel it’s a short drive to the nearby lake where we can scan the edges for grebes, herons, bitterns, Spotted Rail, Ruddy Crakes and other aquatic birds. The entire day will be spent exploring near Coba along the lake edge and in the forests surrounding the ruins. On recent visits, birding and hiking amid the ruins and along the edges of Lake Coba we’ve found Spotted Rail, Ruddy Crake, Least Bittern and other waders, Gray and Roadside Hawks, Northern Jaçana, Blue and Ruddy Ground-Doves, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Great Kiskadee, Mangrove Swallow, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and White-collared Seedeater. Later, as we walked among the ruins, flocks of Olive-throated Parakeets, Canivet’s (Fork-tailed) Emerald, Red-vented (Yucatan) and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, flycatchers (Brown-crested, Social and Greenish and Yellow-bellied Elaenias), Green Jay, Clay-colored (Robin) Thrush, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Grayish and Black-headed Saltators and many orioles (Orchard, Black-cowled, Yellow-tailed, Yellow-backed, Hooded and Altamira to name a few). Even among the many colorful tropical birds, our wintering warblers and Painted Buntings were standouts. The arid scrub south of Coba produced Red-billed Pigeon, Squirrel and Pheasant Cuckoos, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Collared Araçari, Keel-billed Toucan, Bright-rumped Attila, Masked Tityra, Yucatan Jay, Mangrove and Yucatan Vireos and Blue Bunting.

Squirrel Cuckoo by Rick Bowers ©

An afternoon siesta is in order during the heat of midday, as we’ll have our best night birding opportunities in the countryside near Coba. Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Mottled Owl, Black-and-white Owl, Yucatan Nightjar, Yucatan Poorwill or a potoo hawking moths from its perch atop a bare snag are all possible. It’s a tradition on our tours to enjoy at least one sunset from the dock on the lake watching the Pauraques, Yucatan Nightjars and monstrous Marine Toads. Night Coba.

DAY EIGHT, April 9 – We’ll watch the sun rise over the scrubby forests covering this portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. There are several locations where we hope to find cooperative birds to photograph in the beautiful early morning light. Aztec Parakeets darting about the colorful Kapoks, dazzling orioles plucking blossoms from flowering trees, hummingbirds protectively dive-bombing any who dare intrude upon their patch of flowers and striking Yucatan Jays scolding all who care to listen are typical experiences.

With a full day, we’ll explore the more distant portions of the ruins, perhaps by bicycle?, look for antswarms and their attendant birds to photograph and have a leisurely day afield enjoying all the natural wonders available to us.

With three nights at Coba, we have ample time to insure that the endemic nightbirds of the Yucatan are found, seen and, hopefully, photographed by all. With the owls and Northern Potoo adding spice to the night, there is always incentive for a night outing with our cameras! Night Coba.

DAY NINE, April 10 – Our last morning exploring the lakes and forests around Coba. We’ll target any species that have eluded us thus far. It’s likely that we’ll enjoy lunch near Coba before beginning our short drive to Chichen Itza.

Located a short distance west from Valladolid, we find the magnificent Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Perhaps the most impressive ruin site of the Mayan Empire, Chichen Itza is unforgettable. As are the birds! Colorful orioles, buntings and warblers, seldom seen goodies like Yucatan Nightjar, Singing Quail and Pheasant Cuckoo and tropical treats such as Collared Araçari, White-fronted Parrot and Turquoise-browed Motmot can all be found near the grounds of our comfortable hotel. Night Chichen Itza.

DAY TEN, April 11 – A full morning of birding and sightseeing near the ruins of Chichen Itza. Sunrise will find us walking trails near the older section of ruins. Flycatchers, hummingbirds, orioles and colorful Turquoise-browed Motmots are but a few of the avian gems we’ll encounter. After breakfast, we’ll enjoy our visit to the Post Classic Mayan period ruins of Chichen Itza. This ancient city has been impressively restored, and wandering about the magnificent structures leaves an enduring impact. Be sure to bring plenty of film or memory chips for your camera. On my first visit to Chichen Itza, I went through more than 9 rolls of film! (You’re lucky that digital photography renders that particular hardship obsolete!) It’s difficult not to be overwhelmed when viewing these monuments of the gifted ancient Maya.

Located a short distance east across the Yucatan Peninsula from Chichen Itza, Valladolid is a smaller city with lots of typico character. Our hotel here is the historic Hotel El Meson, situated on the central square or zocalo of Valladolid directly across from one of the oldest churches in the entire Yucatan. A major attraction of any Mexican city is the zocalo. A beehive of activity, a walk around the zocalo is a feast for the senses. Colorful embroidery from local women, aromatic temptations from street vendors, the laughter of children at play in the heart of an historic city and uneven and hard paving stones smoothed by the passage of centuries of foot traffic all make their indelible impression. We’ll visit a couple of nearby sites in the late afternoon searching for Thicket Tinamou, Singing Quail, Mangrove Vireo and Pheasant Cuckoo. We’ll enjoy an early evening in preparation for a sunrise . Night Valladolid.

DAY ELEVEN, April 12 – The nearby village of Dzitnup hosts a nice selection of butterflies and birds in the scrub habitats around the village. One locale has been particularly reliable for Singing Quail. Dzitnup is also the scene of a Mayan cenote, or underground water-filled sinkhole. We’ll introduce you to the cenotes, and you’ll have a chance to experience them up close. An after dark search to fill any remaining holes in our nightbird list, or to try for better photos!, is possible.

Singing Quail by Kim & Cindy Risen ©

After lunch, we’ll enjoy the Mexican tradition of siesta during the heat of the day in the shaded comfort of our hotel. After our brief siesta, we’ll explore a number of other archeological zones in the area. Likely are the forested entrance to the Balankanche Caves and, if time allows, the small, yet impressive ruins of Ek Balam. Options are many and all provide good birds & butterflies for us to admire! Night Valladolid.

DAY TWELVE, April 13 – Sunrise will find us in the arid cactus scrub common across the Northern Yucatan beginning a day filled with memorable events. We’ll target two local endemics of the Yucatan (Mexican Sheartail and Yucatan Wren), enjoy an amazing boat tour of the Rio Lagartos estuary for close-up views of American Flamingos and a wide variety of waterbirds and hike a boardwalk trail through thick, seasonally flooded forest. On our boat trip through the lagoons, colorful American Flamingos (which nest in the estuary), odd Boat-billed Herons, a complete roster of herons & egrets, Roseate Spoonbill, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Jabiru (a recently arrived nesting resident) and many other waterbirds are to be expected. After lunch in the village, we’ll explore other coastal areas and scrubby habitats inland for the area’s specialties—Yucatan Wren, Yucatan Bobwhite, Mexican Sheartail, Lesser Roadrunner, White-lored Gnatcatcher and Zenaida Dove before our day is done. Night Valladolid.

DAY THIRTEEN, April 14 – One final morning in Mexico! We’ll enjoy a walk around the beautiful grounds and trails before breakfast. After breakfast, our schedule will be determined by your flights—we’ll have you back in Cancun two hours before your planes depart. You’ll return home with enough memories of tropical forests, birds and ruins to last until your next visit to Mexico!

Leader: Kim Risen and Rick Bowers (2018)

Kim Risen and Nick Bray (2019)

Tour Intro Itinerary Tour Pricing & Information Gallery Bird List Registration